UIX: Reduce, recycle, re-stitch; creative programs divert landfill waste to improve and educate

Compost and recyclable materials are being diverted from local landfills by individuals both looking for a chance to win free concert merch, and those who have a true understanding of environmental responsibility. Either way it’s inspiring.

It takes a lot of planning and effort to keep garbage from polluting the environment.


Depending on the soil composition and particular statutes in place, different materials can be used to make sure trash doesn't leach harmful chemicals into the local water system, but landfill cells throughout the United States are essentially managed the same way. Layers of geosynthetic substrate, bentonite clay, composite mesh, and varying grades of stone and sand are placed into the cell before the first load of garbage is ever delivered.


Landfill cells in West Michigan average under 10 acres each, whether found at the South Kent facility in Byron Center, North Kent Transfer Station in Rockford, or Waste Management facility in Zeeland. Once functional, a cell of such size can reach capacity within a year. And then a new cell is built into the network.


Getting trash to the landfill is as simple as pitching it in the trash and waiting for your weekly pickup day. Keeping it out, however, takes some creativity. Recycling facilities and composting, when managed effectively, can divert around 90 percent of the material originally bound for landfills into more usable states. Is this a commonly practiced habit, however?


The short answer is, “No.”


The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality estimates that $435 million in recyclable material makes its way into state landfills every year. That’s a lot of wasted resources, but there are also a number of groups finding new ways to bring that number down.


Diverting Materials


Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread, is helping keep one of Grand Rapids’ fastest growing resources from adding to our local waste tonnage by repurposing burlap sacks used for grain in production as clothing and other textiles.


Janay Brower of Public Thread

Public Thread specializes in customized cut and sew projects, supplying apparel, accessories, soft goods, and other sewn products in small batches. Working with and near partnering organizations like
Treetops Collective, the company employs local fabricators to design and develop products made out of repurposed materials.


Brower, a Grand Rapids native, founded Public Thread after having worked in systems change on different social issues, from youth development and homelessness, for 14 years. The organization was born "from the need for living wage jobs that establish a foundation for equity in the making of our apparel," Brower says.


She was also seeking an outlet for creative expression. Clothes provided a tangible way to work within a complete supply chain, as well.


"You can use less and make higher quality things and have a bigger economic impact in your own community," she says.


Public Thread maintains a focus on sustainability, re-use, and environmental stewardship in the manufacturing of sewn products, reusing the scraps from each project that was worked on. A fortuitous meeting with Brewery Vivant's Kris Spaulding just happened to help provide a foundation for one of the organization's major throughputs.


"I was at an event one day and was sitting next to [Kris Spaulding] and she said, 'We have these grain bags, and we do not want to throw them away, but we have been because there is no place that will reuse them,'" Brower said.


Grain bags that would normally be thrown away, but are transformed into useful accessories.

Brewery Vivant was using up to 100 grain bags a month, as were many other breweries in the region, Brower says. After connecting with about 10 other breweries in the greater Grand Rapids area willing to donate their single use bags to Public Thread, the group was able to figure out how to keep at least a thousand per month out of the landfill.


"Which is not even a drop in the bucket, considering how many breweries there are," Brower says.


It took creative minds, both inside and outside of Public Thread, to design new uses for the bags. A partnership with WMCAT brought students into the development of these products during a semester of human-centered design.


"It's definitely not a traditional textile that you can sew," Brower says. "We went through a process for a semester to find out what we could make out them that wasn't the obvious."


On the personnel side, a partnership with the Source helps connect Public Thread employees to support and resources for any challenges they may face at work. And, while Public Thread hasn't officially partnered with GRCC, students from the school's industrial sewing program volunteer their time for various projects.


Alongside grain bags from breweries, Public Thread has been receiving donations of traditional, and non-traditional, textiles, fabrics, and other small neccessities, as well. The group is hoping to soon have designs and patterns in place for repurposing the materials formerly used for billboards and banners.


"We've used the materials to make products like four and six-pack holders, growler holders, conference/lunch bags, totes, fanny packs, weekender, and carry all bags of various sizes,

that we sell to people that want to purchase upcycled products made right here in Grand Rapids," Brower says.


Products like four and six pack holders can be made from leftover brewery materials.

Turning trash into profit may seem like a easy way to eliminate overhead costs in the supply chain, but where materials may free up financial resources, providing a living wage to workers demands more than even some of the biggest textile producers have been willing to provide. Americans are disconnected from the true costs of actually making clothes, Brower says, and that makes rationalizing a purchase that takes those costs into consideration all the more challenging.


"There's really no such thing as a $5 T-shirt," she says. "In the end, it costs more than that to the environment and the individual who helped make it but that's not really factored in. We're trying to reintegrate those components so when people buy clothing or accessories, or things that are sewn, it does not have a negative effect on the supply chain."


In order to offset this disconnect, Brower says, there is a lot of education that comes along with the work at Public Thread—not just aimed at consumers, but also designers and small businesses that are contracted for cut and sew operations.


"As we grow into the future, we hope to provide more services and supports for clients (businesses, inventors, and designers) which allow us to pay living wages for artisans to cut and sew high quality, locally made products, Brower says. "Our hopes right now for Public Thread are, how can we provide some additional support and resources to offset the costs? The market is not exactly ready to pay living wages."


Sorting Things Out


Repurposing materials bound for the landfill into useable products is one of the most impactful ways to extend a resource's lifecycle, but what about items that can't, or aren't meant to be reused? When it comes to diverting compostable or recyclable products from landfills, the High Five Program has created a template for environmental stewardship that some of Michigan's most attended events are starting to incorporate.


Rachel Wells and Seth Norton created the High Five Program out of their disillusionment in finding littered festival grounds, despite the sounds of peace and kindness that attracted so many in the first place.


The program was started in 2010 while the pair were working with a number of bands from West Michigan. They used their connections to other organizations in the state and designed a positive way of educating the community and engaging them in a process that, in essence, seems very simple: put out trash and recycling cans and get people to use them.


But for a while, that just wasn't happening.


"We used Hoxeyville for a few years as a pilot location, to test out incentive campaigns," Wells says. "Our thinking was, if we were approach people that were clearly out to have a good time and were littering, if we were to just tell them that that behavior wasn't welcome, that they were very likely to continue that behavior in a stronger way."


Using positive reinforcement, telling those who pitched in, just how "awesome they were" and offering a high five, Well says, was making much more of an impact than simply scolding litterbugs.


Festivals of all sizes, even individual acts have integrated waste incentive programs into their productions but, Wells says, do not incorporate a comprehensive educational platform like the High Five Program has grown to include.


"It kind of became this positive reinforcement to get ahead of the problem, instead of reacting to it," Wells said. "Then people began coming to our booth because they were filled with prizes they could win that represented the events they were at."


And the benefits of the program extend far beyond prizes for picking up trash. Vendors and food production contractors have found such incentives help make their jobs easier, and more cost effective, when they're prepared to reward volunteer custodial work with coupons and other event swag.


The success of the High Five Program is easily measured by the amount of work that needs to be done to clean up the site after each event. When the program is in effect, there's much less, if anything, to be done.


"In the second year we helped out the Hoxeyville Festival in 2011. Umphree's McGee was a headline act and there was not a single piece of trash on the ground after the show," Wells said. We kinda thought, this could be a thing."


Partnering with the Michigan Brewers Guild, the High Five Project expanded into events hosted by Founder's, Brewery Vivant, and other local beer establishments, as well as in the cafeteria at the C.A. Frost Elementary school, where the curriculum includes a heavy dose of environmental studies.


"It's amazing how beer drinkers and kindergarteners read at the exact same level," Wells jokes.


For the event facilitators, the High Five Program cuts down the amount of work hours needed to clean up a site. For food contractors and other merchants, the extra help is much appreciated and provides an opportunity to market themselves.


The sight of a thousand kids scrambling to pick up litter after a BassNectar set to win a branded nylon taffeta hammock is proof enough that a difference is being made. Compost and recyclable materials are being diverted from local landfills by individuals both looking for a chance to win free merch, and those who have a true understanding of environmental responsibility. Either way it’s inspiring.


"That's really what we've been after. Trying to provide a good service that can help educate people and teach them how easy it is to keep spaces clean," Wells says. "People go to music festivals to experience the music, but they also go to learn about new ways to build their communities and take those principles home with them.”


Taking Out the Trash


In a report published in 1981 by the Science for Citizens Center of Southwestern Michigan, former chairperson of the Hope College geology department Robert L. Reinking warns future generations of the reality we face when we throw things away.


“...little of what we throw away is really gone,” Reinking writes. “Most is simply moved to some other location where, hopefully, we no longer see it. Unfortunately, in a world constantly in need of more land and water resources, these hiding places seldom remain hidden for long.


When these hidden wastes are found, so too is the damage done to the environment. The solution Reinking posited decades ago is no different than what people like Brower and Wells are championing today: creative community involvement and an understanding of the true cost of one’s actions.


“If solid waste problems are are to be solved effectively and expeditiously,” Reinking writes, it is essential that the public be well enough informed that they can understand both the immediate and the far range aspects of solid waste management.”


Those that are pitching in are making a big difference.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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